“Start With Why” and Branding

In my last post, I introduced Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why to talk about good PR. I like Sinek’s book not because he has a revolutionary concept, but because his model packs in a lot of great information in a way that is concise and easy to follow.

It makes perfect sense that Sinek would think up a concise way of viewing marketing and branding activities: he is a marketer. Start With Why grew out of his career at his own agency, Sinek Partners, that he founded in 2002. According to his TED profile, he lost passion for his work, and in the process of re-examining things discovered his Golden Circle model. This has reinvigorated Sinek, who now advises multiple organizations and has a whole website and curriculum built on his book. Sinek is, at his heart, a very smart marketer.

His model, called “The Golden Circle,” has three parts:

– Why

– How

– What


The three parts act as three rings, giving the circle the look of a bull’s-eye. The innermost ring is Why, the middle ring is How, and the outermost ring is What. Sinek posits that most brands and people communicate from the outside-in, telling us What they do, then How they do it, then maybe Why they do it. As he demonstrates, this way of communicating and acting can lay out plenty of details, but it doesn’t necessarily connect with people. Sinek says it best: “People don’t buy What you do, they buy Why you do it.”

To better connect with people, we should try communicating from the inside-out: Why, then How, then What. When we communicate like this, we find that our Why begins with the broad strokes (Apple: We believe in thinking differently. We believe in challenging the Status Quo.), then our Hows apply them to the real world (Apple: We build products that are beautifully designed, simple to use, and user-friendly.). After the Hows, we can easily rattle off our Whats (Apple: We build computers. And iPhones. And iPods. And iPads. And…).


A key takeaway from this model, especially when using Apple to illustrate it, is that if we establish a wholehearted trust in our Why and our Hows, our Whats could be almost anything. Apple doesn’t currently make a refrigerator, but if they did I assure you people would buy it. Why? Because they know a fridge made by Apple would be different. It would have great design that would make sense for your lifestyle. In fact, the design would probably be so great that it would change the way you interact with the appliance. Now that is a strong brand image.

This is also what I meant yesterday when I wrote that people will “fill in the blanks” with things congruent to their perception of the brand. I have no clue about Apple’s ability to design and build a decent fridge, but here I am, raving about how this fictional appliance would have mind-blowing design quality. In fact, if I try hard enough, I could even begin to think about what I would expect that fridge to look like. That’s because my perception, or the reality I have constructed around Apple, is based on the qualities they emphasize. It’s based on their Why.

When we openly plant our brand’s roots in our Why and base our activities on it, we have the ability to create a powerful brand image.


The First Lesson in PR

When I took my first Public Relations class at TCU, on the very first day my professor opened with a saying that she believed illustrated the underlying mentality necessary for good PR work:

“Perception is Reality.”

That is, people will evaluate other people, brands or movements based on their perception. And when they don’t have the full picture, they’ll fill in the blanks with assumptions congruent with their perception.

To most people, this comes off as a negative lesson — that the PR professional’s job is to spin, to lie and cheat people into a false perception. Because, of course, the reality underneath will never be as pretty as we’d like it to be.

But to fully understand where the great Public Relations professionals stand, we need to flip the scenario and focus on the positive side. If we present an honest and likable brand image, we can create an honest and likeable reality for our audience to interact with. And, better yet, the audience will still fill in their information gaps with their own details. But this time, their assumptions will be positive ones: giving the benefit of the doubt, assuming best intentions, and playing devil’s advocate against the opposition.

One of the best illustrations I’ve seen of this concept comes from Simon Sinek’s book, Start With Why. Sinek proposes that people and organizations best connect with other people by prioritizing their “Why.” By this, he means their purpose or their guiding belief — for instance, Apple’s mantra of “Think Different,” an insistence on challenging the status quo — should guide the person or organization’s actions and statements.

When brands base their communications and activities on their Why, they make a bold statement: “This is who we are and what we stand for.”

Sinek shows how important this is through an example he calls The Celery Test. The basic picture of The Celery Test runs like this: If you have openly made a goal to lose weight and live a healthier lifestyle, and you find yourself in the checkout line in a grocery store with a bundle of celery and a package of Oreos, which are you going to keep and which are you going to put back if you really want to order your actions in a healthier way?

This example is relevant to brands as well as people: When we make a statement about who we are and what we stand for, we create a touchstone for our audience to base their perceptions on. And if we want our audience to stay with us, we’re going to eat our Celery. We’re also going to ditch our Oreos, even though they’re delicious when dunked in some milk. Why? Because we’ve signed our identity onto a reality, and we know that everything matters in upholding this reality both for ourselves and for our audience. Pulling this off is hard, but it’s important.

Those who do it best know something else: everything matters. Not just the broad company statements, but also the individual behaviors of every employee. Unfortunately, we must sweat the small stuff.

This is why PR matters. PR doesn’t teach you to spin or lie, it teaches you to care — and care a hell of a lot.

“The Way” and the Transformative Nature of Traveling

“If you visit many places, you might see animals with many ways of living and meet people with many ways of thinking. First, accept the ways of living and thinking that sometimes conflict with your own and think about what’s really important, this will truly broaden your horizons.” – Sycamore


I recently watched The Way for an honors class at TCU. I thoroughly enjoyed the film for a variety of reasons, which I’ll cover in a moment. For now, if you haven’t seen The Way, take a moment to check out the trailer:




As you can see, the movie stars Martin Sheen as Thomas Avery, an American doctor walking The Camino for his son, who died in the Pyrenees while on the famous pilgrimage. Tom is, in several ways, a broken man — a lapsed Catholic and widower who recently lost his only son, wrapped up in the safe high-class lifestyle he has created for himself as a doctor. The film illustrates how Tom, along with companions he meets along the way, finds purpose and identity while on the Camino.


There are plenty of takeaways from the film, but one thing in particular stuck out to me as I watched it: Tom’s journey demonstrates many aspects of travel that make it meaningful to people.


Why do I think this is important?


Last spring I had the opportunity to study abroad in London for five months. During that period of time I did as much traveling as possible, including one extended three week trip with my buddy Johnny that I termed the “European Blitz.” Before I went to London, I had never left the U.S. before and never really considered myself a “travel person.” That all changed as I began to experience the world for myself in travel.


Traveling vs. Tourism


Before I elaborate on the benefits of travel, I’d like to first give some attention to what I mean by traveling — where I draw a line between traveling and tourism. This distinction stems from a conversation I had with a fellow student I met while traveling, a cool guy from Kansas named Alex. He pointed out that “people like us,” aren’t in this for planned events or Facebook pictures. We’re traveling to learn more about the world, it’s people and ultimately, ourselves.


As Alex drew the distinction, “tourists” are people who only travel for the bragging rights and the sense of importance. Tourists go somewhere to escape from the grind, but Travelers go somewhere to escape into something new.


Traveling is about embracing and finding significance in both the highs and the lows, and actively seeking out opportunities to stretch yourself as you respond to new experiences. Traveling is about lacing up your boots and leaving The Shire. Traveling is, as cliché as it sounds, about the journey — not the destination.


How We Are Transformed By Traveling

– Lack of comfort brings confidence


In The Way, Tom experiences some deep physical discomfort. Old and unconditioned, he has to push himself forward through sheer will. To go at the accelerated pace his mindset demands, he has to push even harder than necessary. At one rest stop, he struggles to fall asleep on a bare mattress, surrounded by countless other travelers making noise in the moonlight. Tom also loses his pack twice and even gets thrown in jail.


Simply put, he has a bad time. On the Camino, there is no travel planner, no itinerary and no hand-holding.


As I watched Tom struggle at points during his journey, I realized how much I could empathize. When you have a rough time while traveling, you’ve entered your official initiation into traveling.

Tom’s struggles mirror those of many travelers. However, the trials of traveling can be the direct causes of significance. As we push through, rise above or bow beneath the challenges we face while traveling, we are humbled and instructed by the experience. And after these tough experiences, we can look back with pride at how far we’ve come.


– Crazy people, crazy stories


If traveling gives us anything, it is memories. Since I have returned to the States after my semester abroad, I have remarked to many people that I had more “flashbulb” memories and formative experiences in those five months than I had in the past five years. These memories are not always the lofty horizon-broadening ones we love to talk about, but more often hilarious, awkward, or embarrassing experiences that we can tell for the rest of our lives.

In The Way, Tom and his companions meet a memorably crazy man. This man originally appeared to be an enthusiastic host to pilgrims, but was later discovered hysterically talking to himself and impersonating multiple personalities. The pilgrims quickly (and wisely) decide to move on to find a different place to stay.


Walking away with these memories reminds us of the opportunities we are given as travelers. We are blessed with the chance to sample experiences everywhere we go — and not all of these are guaranteed to be enjoyable. But the “war stories” remind us that not all things are to be taken seriously, and that the world is rarely congruent with our expectations.


– Making profound connections through a shared journey


Throughout much of the film, Tom persists in ignoring and disrespecting his fellow travelers. Instead of seeking to make conversations, he seeks to avoid them — especially when they become personal. By doing this, Tom is throwing away one of the most rewarding travel opportunities.


To be honest, this made me pretty angry. Why? Because with almost every memorable or enjoyable experience I had while abroad, I can point directly to another person I shared it with.


But Tom’s attitude doesn’t last. After learning more about the struggles of others and publically embarrassing himself (and being saved by the same companions he disrespected and ignored), Tom is humbled. Only after this humbling experience does Tom fully embrace his companions as partners and friends.

When we open ourselves to sharing our journey with others, we are opening ourselves to new knowledge of others as well as ourselves. This amplifies both the good and the bad. Sharing the journey teaches us to let ourselves be vulnerable.


– Learning that the journey is not about the destination


In The Way, Tom’s journey is atypical from beginning to end. He did not plan for the Camino and was not in shape for it. He thinks he walks for his son, not for himself. He closes himself off to new experiences. These distinctions can go on and on, but the most important one is the end. Encouraged by a Gypsy who understands his motivations, Tom decides to continue past the traditional destination of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela to the sea, to finish depositing his son’s ashes there.


Ultimately, going to the sea isn’t what’s important here. It’s Tom’s willingness and desire to go the extra mile. It’s also about what changes brought Tom there.


To repeat the cliché I wrote earlier, traveling is about the journey, not the destination. When Tom reaches the ocean, we can all pause to reflect on the personal changes and adventures that got him there. Those experiences are what make Tom’s journey so life-changing, and ultimately what give Tom peace. Being present in one’s own journey is an essential part of growing from it.


– Deep exposure to new cultures


One of the more obvious benefits of traveling to new places is experiencing new cultures. Tom’s journey in The Way is no exception. Tom talks with a man who dreamed of being a bullfighter, and hangs out with a “small” gathering of gypsies. Tom learns new things from these groups that stay with him during his journey, and likely for the rest of his life.

When we travel, we not only observe foreign cultures — we live in them. While a tourist might seek out a hotel that makes the experience comfortable, the traveler meets the culture where it is. Travelers get a decidedly deeper experience as a result.


– Personal Change


My main point in this post is this: When you embark on an adventure, you can expect to be a different person by the time you reach the end. Hopefully you’ve managed to become a better person as well.

We can see this in The Way:

  •  Tom learns to embrace the journey, let people and ideas into his life, and to humble himself. He also arrives at a sense of closure after his son’s death.
  •  Joost learns to embrace the positive things about himself, as well as the realities of self-change.
  •  Sarah gains independence from her past, and a sense of self-reliance for the future.
  •  Jack learns to take himself less seriously, and to be less of a spectator — and of course, he breaks his writer’s block.


Every traveler can share some similar notion of how they’re different, no matter the length, destination or nature of their journey. Generally speaking, anyone who searches for an experience will find it. My experience abroad, while extremely valuable, was a “soft” introduction to world travel. I may have lived out of a backpack for three weeks, but I am by no means a seasoned veteran of life on the road. But after seeing the benefits of such a short and comparatively shallow trip, I think everyone should take the opportunity to travel when they have the chance.


I hope this post invigorates a curiosity for the nature of travel as well as an appreciation of its benefits — whether you run away to walk the Camino or not. And in the meantime, watch The Way. I recommend it.



This is my first “real” post on the blog! Let me know in the comments below if you liked it, hated it, or didn’t even read it. I’m excited to keep blogging about exciting topics that are on my mind.

First post and introduction

Welcome to my personal website and blog!

I’ve been writing online since January 2011. Previously, I wrote about a variety of topics at a blog with an absurdly long name. That blog served me well — it hosted some interesting posts about my life and my studies while also introducing me to some of the basics of blogging.

However, now that I have a pretty sweet personal website, I’ll be shifting my blog over to a self-hosted one here. My old blog will continue to exist as a record of old thoughts and pursuits, but I’m excited to ramp things up to a more professional level that will teach me all sorts of things about SEO, WordPress design, and digital media.

Expect more posts here about advertising, public relations, marketing, entertainment, psychology, and so on — but for now I have quite a laundry list of things to take care of around the site. Buckler out!